Islamism and Post-Colonial Psyche

By: Mustafa Gurbuz

April 7, 2022

Religion and Nationalism in Global Perspective

“I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims,” goes the statement that has been associated with Egypt’s top religious authority, Mohammad Abduh (1849-1905). “I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.”

A generation earlier, Muslim scholar Rifa’a Al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) produced an extensive travelogue on French culture, speaking highly about Western modernity without perceiving a clash between science versus religion. Indeed, among Muslim intelligentsia, such sentiments of combining the values of the Islamic tradition and Western modernity were quite common in the nineteenth century.

As early encounters of Islamic world and Western modernity did not see a clash between the two, Jocelyne Cesari’s inquiry on nationalism and religion offers a great starting point. Despite the initial harmonious tandem, Muslim societies have become increasingly skeptical about Western modernization, especially after colonial capture of their economies and decades of brutal military domination. In the twentieth century, the perceptions of Western supremacy began to acquire different meanings in the Arab world. On the one hand, Western modernity ushered in a new “peoplehood” with an evolutionary progress: a national identity, an enlightened elite, and scientific advancement that benefit the masses. On the other hand, the imagined community of “nation” entailed a full independence, seen in the form of Western nation-states. With the establishment of the League of Nations, the right of self-determination meant that independence naturally followed peoplehood.

But what did it mean to be Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, or Syrian—given that the artificial borders were drawn by colonial powers? It was a challenge famously expressed by Italian statesman Massimo d’Azeglio (1798-1866): “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” In fact, Arab elites faced a bigger conundrum. 

It was, rather, a paradox: How could they embrace the Western form of nationalism without Westernization that paralyzed their true independence? 

It was the Western model of nationalism that was generating anti-colonialist, hence anti-Western, attitudes. Demos needed to be based on legitimate sources that could support this anti-colonialist imagination. In this sense, cultural repertoires such as language and religion were the best candidates to provide authenticity, and hence, legitimacy.

For some Arab thinkers, Islam was indeed offering a solution to the puzzle. Yet, new interpretations of Islam were drifting away from earlier generations who saw no problem in combining Western modernity and Islamic values. From this perspective, free engagement with the West had only resulted in economic colonialism and the loss of freedom. Thus, the path to modernity should be formed by Islamic principles with a total rejection of Western culture. The Muslim Brotherhood was born within this milieu in the 1920s in Egypt under the British mandate. Additionally, the notion of “nation” in this context did not necessarily align with sovereign borders, but rather was based on a global Islamic community in such imagination—the ummah.

Religion as a national glue, however, was not the favorite among most Arab intellectuals in early twentieth century. After all, some of the most influential thinkers in the Arab world were Christians. The best candidate to unite a new peoplehood was language and ethnicity. 

Secular Arab nationalism soon emerged as the most powerful social force, thanks to socialist thinkers who were combining anti-colonialism and modern scientific progress. 

In analyzing the rise and decline of Arab nationalism by the mid-twentieth century, one cannot ignore the mass yearning for freedom, belonging, authenticity, and dignity against Western hegemony. Although the age of secular socialism gradually faded away, such popular sentiments—which I would call “post-colonial psyche”—has remained in place. In fact, the rise of Islamism after the 1980s was an expression of frustration against the secularist elite who had become too similar to Western colonialists, appearing as “mimic men” in Vidia Naipaul’s terms. Frantz Fanon’s psychoanalysis prophesied the problem as it was calling for an epistemological revolution; otherwise, people’s breakdown of colonial oppression will “automatically” build up “yet another system of exploitation,” this time with “a black face or an Arab one,” as long as the mimic men are in power.

Thus, it is critical to understand how Islamist political parties have tapped into mass post-colonial psyche. The secularist-Islamist divide—whether in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, or Turkey—does not contradict the fact that the same sentiments for dignity and true economic independence from the West have been widely shared across political spectrums. In fact, the Arab revolutions of 2011 proved that both secularist and Islamist constituencies hate the mimic men and their institutional base, the civil-military top-down elite structure. As Edward Said notes, Fanon’s psychoanalysis was unique to emphasize that “orthodox nationalism followed along the same track hewn out by imperialism, which while it appeared to be conceding authority to the nationalist bourgeoisie was really extending its hegemony.” The Arab nationalism in its secularist form eventually lost its might as Fanon had expected: nationalism after independence from colonial rule is likely to “crumble into regionalisms inside the hollow shell of nationalism itself.”

The disenchantment from the secular nationalist experience has paved the way for the rise of political Islamism, especially after the 1979 Iranian revolution. 

Islamist parties’ participation in electoral systems have shaped the trajectory of regional dynamics in recent decades. The lure of its social justice message has mobilized millions who perceived an authentic voice for dignity through these political parties’ calls. Political Islam’s appeal, however, has lost its strength in places where Islamists came to power. From Turkey to Morocco, using religion in the service of the nation-state has brought familiar complications as most Islamists simply mimicked their predecessors, the secularist bourgeoisie. They have changed some street names and national days of commemoration rather than bringing an epistemological revolution that was called for by Fanon. Consider the Turkish experience under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. The party’s social justice slogan never materialized in a form of Islamic sensitivity to environmental justice issues or workers’ rights; instead, it has become a right-wing populism with a new oligarchic elite of its own. What made Erdogan a hero in the eyes of many was indeed the same reason that made Nasser, a secularist, a hero decades ago: a claim of defiance and dignity against the West, hence, tapping into post-colonial psyche. For most Islamists, Erdogan’s Davos outburst against Israel was the most memorable achievement in his tenure.

Thus, using the psychoanalytic lenses of Fanon, Islamism is a modern product aimed at a stigmatized Muslim self with a postcolonial psyche. It is a matter of identity politics rather than a path to spirituality. It is belonging rather than piety. Islamism’s emphasis on an idealized Muslim ummah has been distorted by the modern nation-state framework. Ummah was reconstructed as “nation” rather than “community;” the Prophet Mohammad was imagined as a nation-state leader rather than a community leader of a multicultural and multireligious city. The notion of sharia, Islamic law, was also interpreted under the modern nation-state milieu. Sharia, as Noah Feldman puts it, “offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world” until the modern era. Yet, using sharia as subservient to the state, Islamists ignored the fact that the modern nation-state’s technologies of the self were inherently contradictory with the basic principles of Islamic ethics and morals, hence, conflicting with the main goals of the Islamic law. In the words of Wael Hallaq, the very notion of an Islamic state, “judged by any standard definition of what modern state represents,” has been an “impossible” project as it is self-contradictory.

Ending passages of Albert Hourani’s magnum opus, A History of the Arab Peoples, were prophetic to see the failure of political Islam and prospects of popular disenchantment from Islamism in the name of Islam. The inherited wisdom of the Islamic scholars who composed the ulama was that “it was dangerous to tie the eternal interests of Islam to the fate of a transient ruler of the world,” wrote Hourani. Instead, he proposed that a certain point in their development nations would embrace “another system of ideas: a blend of social morality and law which were basically secular, but might have some relationship to general principles of social justice inherent in the Qur’an.”

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